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Reclaiming the Symbols of Lent: Crown of Thorns

Matt. 27:27-31

Most of you are probably familiar with the irritant of having a rock in your shoe. You shake your shoe, hoping to move it around or shake it out. And you take a few steps. No. It’s still there. As annoying as ever. You maneuver again to get it out and finally sit down, take the shoe off, dump it out, put it on again, and tenderly try walking again. Most of the time that does the trick. Occasionally, though, the annoying irritant is still there. And it takes another shake, shoe removal, sock removal, dump, and restart to fix the problem.

There are rare occasions, however, when the irritant becomes a blister inducer because it simply will not be removed.  Instead of being a small pebble, it is actually a sticker or a piece of sand that refuses to dump out. It gets embedded and causes greater damage than a moment of frustration. Unresolved, these embedded irritants can cause longer term damage, infection, and even worse.

Consider this as a metaphor in our Lenten journey. Someone asked me this week why I would choose to preach on the negative aspects of the Lenten journey – ashes, a mocked purple robe, a crown of thorns, the Garden of Gethsemane, the cross…why spend weeks thinking about suffering and pain? It’s true that I’m an optimist who would rather turn to Easter quickly and wrap everything up each week with a beautiful bow and a life-giving message of resurrection. I would like to somehow make it through the season with no suffering, no Passion, no ambiguity, no pain.

I do not know if you have ever been exposed to the Victorian versions of Shakespeare. The Victorians wanted Shakespeare’s tragedies to turn out a bit happier–you know, for young and innocent readers. So, they changed the endings of Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, and Hamlet. Romeo and Juliet, for example, not only recover, but they reconcile…they and their families…and they all live happily ever after!

But the church (and this minister) must recognize the truth–that the human condition is one of unresolved ambiguity. That suffering and death are an inescapable part of life. The Gospel writers knew this, of course.  They dramatically told the story:

* the crowd cried “Hosanna” one moment and “crucify him” the next

* the disciples who followed Jesus for three years were shown as deserters and deniers

* on the cross, there were thieves–one without remorse and one who made a life changing confession as he died

* Jesus prayed “let this cup pass from me” and then “not my will, but thine be done”.

Last week, I spoke about the irony of purple–the suffering Jesus endured being mocked as the “King of the Jews” while wearing a priceless purple robe. And the reminder of our own fickle nature as Christians when we celebrate Jesus as Savior and then betray him in our next breath. 

Peter Gomes wrote: “God’s love is the only things that make sense of the suffering, conflict and tragedy. That is the only reality. God’s love. God’s love does not do away with it. But God’s love is the thing that makes it possible to bear it, to see it, to share in it, to understand it, and to pass through it. That is the truth of the gospel, and that is the essence of Lent.”

The scripture reading for today was from the Gospel of Matthew. It is after Jesus’ trial and sentencing. The soldiers are mocking Jesus. Note the vivid detail and the irony of this scene. It is as if they are holding a mock coronation ceremony for Jesus as a king.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.             Matt. 27: 27-31

All the accoutrements and insignia of royalty are mockingly noted. Jesus is a clown-king, complete with a robe, crown, scepter, kneeling, and pronouncement. The crown of thorns is not just for torture–the sharp points radiating outward represent the rays of divinity surrounding a ruler’s head (like we see in ancient art or on Hellenistic coins depicting the kings of antiquity). 

In the ancient world, thorns and thistles represented (from Genesis on) the sinfulness of humanity. According to Genesis, thorns came into being because God cursed the ground when the first humans sinned. That made thorns represent sin, sorrow, human adversity, enemies, and all bad things. A crown of thorns put on Jesus therefore, was highly symbolic. It literally represented the sins of generations.

And while the crown of thorns would have been exceedingly painful–it was more about mockery than it was about pain. It would have made him look ridiculous. In addition, they gave him a reed for a scepter, and spit in his face.  

I met with a family recently to prepare for the funeral of the family matriarch. As her story unfolded, I learned that she had a son who was born with a birth defect. She took care of him for about 8 years before he died. She took care of her husband for 20 years at the end of his life while he was ill. She took care of another son, who also died. And both of her parents. Her entire life was about caregiving. The surviving family members were extremely grateful to their mom and grandmother for all the love she had shared over the years, but they worried in retrospect, that she had not been able to live her own life freely.  I asked if they thought she took pleasure in giving that care to the ones she loved. I truly expected that her daughter would say “yes, she found purpose and joy in providing that care.” But she did not say it. She said, “my mom knew it was her role to take care of her children and her husband and her parents. It was her duty. She did it and she did not complain. While she did not enjoy it per say, it was her lot in life, and she accepted it without any question.”

I have been thinking about that during Lent. This woman was not a martyr. She lived a long and happy life. She took pleasure in other aspects of her life, and she went about caregiving for multiple relatives without question for years at a time. She lost two of her three children in her lifetime. She lived with that irritating sticker in her shoe off and on for many years. She lived in the ambiguity of life. 

I know some of you live in the ambiguity of life far more than you are comfortable telling others. It would be much simpler to present things wrapped up like an Easter morning outfit–spring colors and patent leather shoes, bunnies, chocolate, and all. But that is not always how our lives look. Sometimes we feel like Jesus standing in the crowd dressed like a clown. In someone else’s robe, wearing a mock crown hurts our feelings and makes our head ache. Feeling the pain of other people’s words and taunts; knowing the indignity and injustice that plagues our world at its core. 


David Robinson wrote a series of daily posts on his web site, The Direction of Intention, about the importance of embracing ambiguity: 

Stepping back into yourself requires some comfort with ambiguity, the capacity to stand firmly within paradox. You must release what you think you are to inhabit who you really are.  Ambiguity is something at which I have never been good. In fact, if I had to make a list of things that make me anxious, ambiguity would pretty much top the list. 

It is like being accustomed to walking down a well-lit path when, suddenly, all the lights are dimmed.  And, oh, you are not allowed to run.  In fact, because you cannot see where you are going as well as you did in the past, you must walk more slowly.  And you have to trust your instincts more, instead of relying on the touchstones along the way.

It's a whole new way of 
traveling.  It requires a lot of trust.  The best reward --at least for ambiguity-averse people like me-- is learning to trust the process, whether tending a garden, creating a business plan, nurturing a friendship, writing a book, or raising a child.  It is the relief that comes from acknowledging that not having all the answers is o.k.   I am learning that confusion and conflict and, yes, ambiguity, are not something to fear or run from, but to accept and treat kindly, bewildering as that sometimes feels.               


As Peter Gomes once wrote, “Jesus did not die in order to spare us the indignities of the wounded creation.  He died that we might see those wounds as our own.  He died that we might live, and live fully and hopefully – please note the correct use of the adverb ‘hopefully’ as ‘full of hope’ – not in some fantastic never-never-land not yet arrived, but in ambiguous reality here and now.  Look at the cross and the suffering bleeding Savior.  Beyond tragedy is truth redeemed.  Look and live!”




Resources Used:

     Gomes, Peter J.  “Sermons; Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living”.  Avon Books.  1998.

     “The New Interpreters Bible”.  Vol. VII.  Abingdon Press.  2015.  “Crown of Thorns – The Symbolism”.  Jan. 17, 2009.  “The Power of Living with Ambiguity”.  June 13, 2011.